Thursday, January 31, 2008

One way Mn Real Estate Taxes have Changed

I got into real estate shortly after getting out of school. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, I wanted to get started investing.

I bought a duplex near Macalester College on Ashland Avenue in Merriam Park, Saint Paul. I paid $86,000, assumed a mortgage used my commission for a downpayment,financed the balance with a contract for deed with no interest for a year.

It was a big investment for me. One reason I could finance essentially 100% of the purchase and still bring in enough rent to make the payments was that I had a financial advantage.

I was going to live there. For that reason my taxes would be homestead, one third of what a non owner occupant would pay. That financial break allowed me to repaint inside and out, refinish floors and do some minor renovation in the first couple of years.

I enjoyed the fact that I had that break and used that same scenario to sell run-down homes to owner occupants who would fix them up.

Through the years the Realtor Association, of which I am a member, has sucessfully lobbied against the homestead/non-homstead system arguing that it discourages investors from buying single family homes. Today the difference between homestead and non-homestead taxes is so minor it hardly even matters.

I beleive that single family homes and duplexes are not well suited to absentee ownership. The maintenance is high and they can become run-down very quickly. Some people do a very good job renting single family homes, but its not an easy gig.

The event of a home switching from homestead to non-homestead status used to be feared by the owner of a home who had moved out. Owners would say, "If we can't sell it we'll just rent it." Upon finding out what would happen to the taxes that plan would change and the house would get sold.

Non-homestead taxes were an easy thing to hate, but they helped to keep the quality of all neighborhoods up. Think of the social costs of neighborhoods full of run-down rentals verses the advantages of having a part of the rental market being duplex, triplex and fourplex owners who live in their property and manage it.

It's hard to imagine that system ever coming back.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Housing Bubble Burst? I think not.

We've heard all about the housing "bubble", how homes were over priced and prices were bound to fall. It certainly seems something has popped.

Its not a housing bubble, homes were not over-priced. At least not in the long term. While the cost of buying a house has dropped the cost of what is in a house has not. Talk to a builder, electrician or plumber. They will tell you material prices have gone through the roof. The cost of replacing your existing home has not dropped and existing homes are certainly less expensive than new.

Our current situation has been caused by loose lending practice, not over priced homes. People who could not reasonably expect to repay loans bought homes. Most of those homes are on the low end of the market and the banks have to take them back. Now the market is temporarily flooded with them. Until that huge inventory of homes is sold, the market will be depressed.

There are many people out there in the middle and upper segments of the market who would like to move or build, but they are sitting out because they need to sell their homes before they can do anything. When we finally sell the current inventory of foreclosure homes the market will start to heat up.

Material prices are up, fuel prices are up. Builders will not be able to offer homes that compete with the existing home market.

There will be a housing market with multiple offers and rising home prices. The effect of higher oil prices will have worked its way into the economy and there will be high inflation. Home owners will have instant equity. Real Estate will be the best hedge against inflation which will add to the escaltion of home prices.

I have heard it said that, suprisingly, we haven't seen much inflation as a result of the increase in oil prices.

If oil prices are up and not coming down, then the inflation has already happened. We just haven't measured it yet. It hasen't made its way through the system yet.

If everyone who drives a car or truck or airplane is paying $50 for a fill when they used to pay $30, how can there not be inflation? If rubber and plastic use petrolium in their manufacture, if steel uses energy in its manufacture, how can there not be inflation? If countries like China are growing, as they are, and consuming natural resources, how can there not be inflation? Lots of it.

If you run all of your credit cards to the limit, you might not see the bill for a month, but you know it is coming. Similarly, we should know that big inflation is lurking out there somewhere.

I'm not suggesting everyone should run out and buy a house. And I'm not rubbing my hands with glee at the prospect of a hot real estate market.

The housing market won't swing tomorrow, but I feel strongly that it will happen. The point of this post, that the real estate market is going to bounce hard, seems obvious, but no one is talking about it.

I wonder what others think. It would be interesting to get a comment on this.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Phantom Smells Part B

Here's one I haven't seen discussed anywhere. We bought a nice area rug on sale. It looked really good on the hardwood floor in our living room. Over time I noticed a sulpher-ish smell in the livng room. I unfairly began to suspect our dogs.
Eventually I got down on my hands and knees and sniffed the rug. Sure enough, the oder was in our new rug - Gosh darned dogs!
We rented a rug cleaner and gave it the once over. The rug was certainly clean. It still smelled. We suspected something in the manufacture of our rug, perhaps a dye? We thought as time went on maybe it would go away.
Getting impatient, we sent the rugh of to a rug cleaner in Saint Paul. When we went to pick it up he gave us a little nugget of information. Heat is used in the manufacture of some rugs. If the rug gets too hot synthetic materials in the rug backing actually get burnt. You can't see it, but you can smell it. He told us we could never wash the smell out. Sometimes, that's the price you pay for a bargain.

Whats that Smell? Part A

Someone could write an entire blog about smells. Here's one that comes up now and again when I'm showing houses. It came up for me the other day and had me stumped until I thought about it.
The smell is sewer gas. All drains in your home should have a trap. A trap is a curve in the drain that collects water. Gas from the sewer or your septic system is prevented from coming up through the drain into your house.
If you smell a bad smell in a strange place and you can't locate its source, think sewer gas. The smell might come and go and it could be worse on a windy day.
It may be coming from an uncapped pipe without a trap, but its usually from a drain that doesn't get much use. In time the water in the trap dries out and the gas finds its way into your home. Its an easy fix. Just pour a few cups of water down the suspected drain.
Worst offenders are basement drains. Do you have one covered by a rug? Having a water softener or furnace condensate line in a basement drain assures the trap never dries out.
Here's something related that has appeared several times on inspection reports for older homes. In an older home floor drains sometimes have a clean out plug in the throat of the drain. The clean out hole bypasses the trap so that a plumber can run a plumbing snake down it.
If the plug has been removed or lost sewer gas can come out of the drain even if there is water in the trap.
Old drains rust and sometimes you can't get a replacement plug to fit. Your local hardware store will have a metal and rubber expansion plug, similar to the drain plug in a boat, that will do the trick.
I can think of other sources of phantom smells. I'll save that for another Post.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Memories of Old Blue

In this short life there are mundane tasks that we do on a daily basis without even thinking. And sometimes we build relationships not even knowing it. I have come to realize we should acknowledge these relationships while they are in full bloom rather than waiting until the blossom shrivels and falls from the flower.

There is one that has been in my life for a long time. Always there with unwavering loyalty. The one I speak of is often present at family gatherings and I shamefully admit to excluding her from photos even cropping those in which she might unexpectedly appear. I admit to being embarrassed at times when seen in public with her.

She is not outwardly beautiful, the years have not been kind to her. I sense that her end may be drawing near so I must get this out while I still have the chance. By admitting my shortcomings and acknowledging her importance in this post, perhaps I can begin to undo some of the injustice the years have heaped upon her. To this point she has not had a proper name.

On this day I name her "Old Blue". With temperatures at 14 below outside I will not ask her to rise to duty. She has in past similar circumstances heeded my call without question and for that she deserves respect.

To my knowledge, since her birth in 1985 she has not spent a single night inside. She has been loaded to the gills time and again with plaster, lath and nails. She has pulled stumps and hauled firewood. Now she is rarely on the roads, but trundles through the fields. She still keeps our driveway clear of snow.

She taught my children what a crank window is and just recently, she managed to teach my eldest to appreciate the cost of gas in less than a week.

Old blue, I fear the years weigh too heavily upon you. I can replace your aged battery, but the signs of a possible leaking head gasket could be the last blow. This winter, in the autumn of your life, I will treat you kindly so that perhaps you will make it to spring.

I hope that once more I may drive with you down field roads and that at least one more time you may feel the caress of the long field grasses across your under carriage and summer breeze in your grill.

Your Custodian,


Frozen Pipes

It's another cold day. My faith in winter has been restored. It's refreshing to have a real winter where there is snow and cold. I was beginning to worry my kids would grow up knowing winter as something old folks tell stories about.

Yesterday one of my agents got a call that water was gushing from a foreclosed house. As I tried hard to ignore the conversation that was none of my business... yet, I wondered how he could have overlooked something as important as winterizing an empty house.

I showed a house once where the water was knee deep in the basement from a broken pipe. Another house as the story goes had comnpletely filled with water to the point that when the agent opened the front door to do the walk through before closing, water came gushing out the front door and ran into the street. That closing didn't happen.

I became familiar with that property upon selling it after the renovation.

If you have a vacant house, regardless of the season, shut the water off. If you don't fully winterise the house, at least open the highest faucet and the lowest faucet to let most of the water run out of the pipes. Its cheap and easy to pour some RV antifeeze into the toilets.

This won't save you if the heat goes out and you don't discover it for a while. Companies that winterize homes have a check list and sometimes even they screw up. If you have a pipe burst with lots of water, you will probably have to tear out any wet area down to the studs.

Through the years I have owned several older rental properties. It's in a cold snap like this that you learn things. Like the house with the crawl space and the access cover removed. It's summer when you replace it. It might not occur to you that all of the pipes will freeze when the temperature drops.

Once I stuffed insulation around a pipe in a bathroom to keep cold air from coming into the vanity not appreciating I was causing the pipe in the wall to freeze.

Don't ever use a torch or paint burner to thaw frozen pipes. Presented with a frozen pipe and having a plumbing torch you might be tempted. The wood in an old house is very dry and can light up quicker than you imagine. Hair dryers work or even better just a fan directed to the area of freeze up will do the trick.

I should say the frozen foreclosure with the gushing water turned out not to be ours. Maybe a bank lost track of one.

Looking at Houses

Since the beginning of the new year there has been an uptick in activity. The web site is showing more hits, we are getting more phone calls and most importantly, showings and offers.

For me, as a Realtor, there are different "modes" for showing homes. There are the buyers that are out there, calling occasionally when they see something of interest. There is the buyer "out of the blue" who calls and just wants to see one listing and there are the folks who have decided they are seriously looking. We go out and see everything that could fit their needs.

Occasionally there are those, usually transferring from another town, who want to see everything at once, 10, 15 maybe even twenty homes in a day. This is not the best approach unless you are forced by circumstances.

More commonly I set up five or six homes at a time. Sometimes people prefer to see fewer. If we are starting at 10 am I set the first showing for 10 am to 11 am, the second is set to overlap for 10:15 am to 11:15 am and so on. I adjust the overlap depending on drive times. This way we can spend more or less time at any given house. If one house cancels it doesn't screw up the whole schedule.

Everyone is different. Some folks will spend a lot of time in every house while others breeze through almost like they aren't even looking. Its just a personality thing.

There is a question that often comes up, regardless of the type of buyer. How do I keep track of these? After a while it might be hard to remember which house had the new roof or which kitchen didn't have a dishwasher.

Here's a helpful idea that you might like even if you are the type who takes written notes on every house.

As you leave each house give it a rank in your head. Compare everything to your favorite. Always have a favorite even if you don't like the first house, call it your favorite. If you don't like the second house, still choose a "favorite" between the two you don't like.

I think you will find if you consciously decide which is the best when you walk out the door of every house you look at, you will remember more details about all of them. You will certainly remember the top two or three in more detail.

J. T.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Financing Letters - Pre approval

In the old days we Realtors sat down with our customers and calculated how much mortgage they could afford. The Realtor asked about credit, Income, job history, debt, credit cards.

We would take a little worksheet and figure out what our buyer could afford. When the offer was written and accepted the buyer would apply for financing. Usually this would be "our" loan officer.

I'm not sure when the change occurred, but I remember concern that banks wanted to become the origination point of the real estate transaction. The idea was that buyers would go to the banker first and banks would tell the customer which Realtor to use. Banks would control the real estate market. Realtors didn't like that idea.

Some buyers now go to the bank before looking at homes. Sometimes they use a bank suggested by the Realtor and sometimes they have a bank they are comfortable with before they meet the Realtor. As far as I can tell, the banks have not taken over the real estate market.

An old friend once told me. "Hire painters to paint and bankers to bank and don't take stock tips from your painter." Your financing is a little bit like that. Your Realtor can set you on the right financing path. We have good general financing information, but in our specialized world it is the lenders job to tell you what you can afford.

What the Realtors used to do was called "pre-qualifying". There were no guarantees connected with it but it gave a pretty good approximation of what you could afford. Today lenders may prequalify you and even give you a prequalifying letter to present with an offer.

Now a days there is another step that comes after qualifying called pre-approval. Pre approval means your request for financing is submitted to the "underwriter" and approved. The underwriter is the person at the bank who looks over all of the information on the application and says "yes" or "no". They make sure that the loan request falls within certain guidelines.

Mere mortals like Realtors and buyers don't get to speak with underwriters. Like the all powerful OZ they can make the wishes of buyers and Realtors come true. Like the Wizard I am sure they are just normal people, could be the fellow next to you in the check out line at the grocery.

Sellers consider a pre approval letter to better than a qualifying letter. If you are truly pre approved, the only steps remaining are to find the house and for the appraisal to be done. The appraisal must show the home has a high enough value and is in good enough condition.

It should be noted here that we are in the middle of a change. I would guess that underwriters are under immense pressure to filter out potential bad loans, also some markets are declining in price. We may start seeing underwriters requiring increased down payments after the loan has been submitted.

It used to be common practice for lenders to request letters from buyers explaining details about their specific financial situation before approval. I wouldn't be surprised to see this come back.

If you don't have a pre approval letter yet, but you have some idea what you can afford, its okay to get started looking. Your Realtor can point you to a good lender. I would not delay on the financing however, most sellers expect some kind of financing letter to be presented with an offer.

When you find the house you want, everything can happen fast. You will be much more comfortable if you know your finances are in order.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Moisture on Windows

Condensation on windows is a special cold climate problem. Cold air can't hold as much water as warm air. When warm air gets cooled, water is the result. If you ignore water on the inside of your windows, they will start to mold and eventually rot.

In our old house with single pane glass and storm windows this wasn't a problem. The old house had enough natural ari exchange that water never pooled on our windows. With our new home there is some learning going on.

New homes are tight and air flow is regulated. Our house is very good about retaining heat, it also retains moisture from breathing, cooking, showers, plants etc. During this recent cold snap water and ice formed around the edges of our windows. Our windows are wood on the inside. Water and wood is not a good combination.

Here is what I have learned. In a modern home with double pane windows when the temperature gets to 15 degrees your humidity should be kept 35% or lower. When it hits twenty below you may need to keep the humidity lower than 20%.

If water forms around the edges of your windows the humidity in your house probably exceeds the numbers mentioned above. If you commonly have humidity on your windows you need to get it out. It is healthy to have some humidity in your house.

Someone in a slightly older home told me they turn down their humidfier when it gets cold and that works for them. Our house stays humid without a humidifier so we need to run our air exchanger more when it gets cold.

The meaning of the little dial on the air exchanger control became clear to me this weekend. It's a humidistadt that runs the air exchanger until the humidity is at the level set on the dial. I never have been good about reading directions.

I should ad a note to this information. If you have moisture between the panes of your double pane windows this is different. Your window has a broken seal and the glass needs to be replaced. Check with the window manufacturer, it may be under warranty for longer than you think.


Teens Below

It's in the teens below zero this morning in Red Wing. I noticed another real estate blogger has posted pictures of the city in the cold. I thought, in the interest of balance, we should have a cold photo of the country.

Well I have to act fast before it goes away.

This photo was taken from our bedroom window this morning just before sunrise. There is a certain stillness the cold brings that's nice -- if you're not a wild animal that has to live in it.

Myself, I just go out to visit occasionally. I enjoy the winter and the cold. I'm not the only one, our husky mutt, Luka rolls around and buries her head in the snow. She seems to smile as she bounds through the snow.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Low Offer and the Spin Doctor

You have found that perfect home and it's time to write an offer. You can't get to this stage of the game in our market without some mention of a low offer. Are low offers a good idea? Is it foolish not to make a low offer? How low is low? Let's get some perspective.

From your point of view, the real estate buyer, this is an important investment. You wouldn't want to pay too much, especially on an investment as big as a house. Everyone is talking about the market and slow home sales. Seems like a no brainer. Offer low and see what happens.

What if you are in love with the property? What if its one of a kind? What if it's already priced low? I'm going to skip the part about figuring out what the house is worth. Valuation is not what I am writing about. What goes on in the minds of the Buyers and Sellers is what this is about.

As the Buyer you will start to figure the price you should offer in your mind. You will think about the cost of things you will have to do. Replacing the furnace or the roof, or ripping out carpet or painting or anything you can think of. You may attach a dollar value to these items and subtract it from the price. You should be thinking, even if you feel it unlikely, about how it would be if someone else came along and bought the house out from under you. Somehow you will weigh these factors when formulating an offer.

It is fair enough, a buyer has to have some way to compare. Buyers come to me with lists showing everything that is wrong with the house they want and the know cost of each correction. As the offering price gets lower, the list gets longer as the Buyer tries to justify what they hope they can get the house for. Some will say "Give this list to the sellers so they know why our offer is low so they understand we are reasonable people."

I say this list is for you, not the seller and don't forget to think about if the items on your list are already factored into the listing price.

If seller has lived in this house they are in a good position to know about the condition. They are going to have their own ideas about price.

Don't burn valuable energy telling someone what's wrong with their stuff. Right or wrong, you are likely to start an adversarial relationship. In fact, a good Realtor will present everything you think is good about the property, what wonderful, well qualified buyers you are, present the price and sit quietly and watch the seller make the list of problems themselves.

Low offers don't always get accepted and they are not always a good idea. They cause pain and sometimes damage a negotiation beyond repair. The stages that a seller goes through when accepting a low offer may seem familiar.

Stage one, anger. "What do they think they are doing, this is crazy, we won't consider this". An agent who hasn't been through this might just say okay and walk away - what a huge mistake. (even if the seller is right)

Stage two: Denial. "Our home is worth more than this, if we wait long enough a better offer will come. (keep in mind the seller could be right)

Stage Three: Depression. I can't believe this is the offer we have to look at. Is it possible our house is only worth this much.

Stage Four: Acceptance: If this is what we have to do lets get it over with, where do I sign?"

As a buyer you need to remember this process can break down at any time for a number of reasons: Financial inability to accept the offer, continued confidence that someone else will come along. Another buyer might actually come along while you are haggling. What a wonderful feeling for the seller to accept a reasonable, clean offer when someone else has been raking them over the coals.

You don't want the reason for the break down to be because of something you can manage - your image. Be pleasant and respectful in your attitude

If the seller is a bank rather than an, there is no telling what they will do. A general rule is that the lower the offer, the greater the possibility of rejection or a counter near the asking price. If you can think like the seller and present an offer that is near their bottom line, you are much more likely to meet with success.

We've also had very low offers accepted on foreclosures only to find that the investor who holds the mortgage cancels the deal before final signing, buys back the property and the house disappears from the market all together.

As the listing agent we get an email that says something like: "Sorry, the original investor has decided to repurchase the mortgage. Cease all marketing activity and let the buyer know the agreement is cancelled." Everybody hates this situation.

The bottom line is that you will have a lot more success negotiating if you manage the seller's first impression of you(which should not be solely someone who throws in a low ball offer). Also pay attention to the Seller's point of view.

Good Luck!

J. T.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Heating your House

This is Minnesota and everyone seems to talk about the weather. We are in for a cold stretch.. I thought I would talk about furnaces. Here's our boiler. It hangs on the wall. You can see the blue hot water storage tank next to it. The storage tank is about the size of a water heater. More about that later.

The most popular kind of furnace around here is the forced air furnace. They are the least expensive and they provide air flow which, among other things, allows you to have air conditioning. A home inspector will tell you that a forced air furnace has a life expectancy of about 20 years.

In an older furnace the heat exchanger could develop a crack. This is bad because carbon monoxide from the burning of natural gas or propane can enter your home through the crack. Every year when there is a cold spell there are carbon monoxide deaths in the news.
You should have a carbon monoxide detector in your home and have your furnace checked before each heating season. I recently sold a home with a 50 year old forced air furnace, which did actually looked old. I'm sure it was not very efficient.

A twenty year old forced air furnace can look like new, they haven't changed much in that time. High efficiency furnaces are becoming more common. A standard furnace may be 85% efficient whereas the newer high efficiency models may be more than 95% efficient.

Higher Efficiency models are more expensive, but they pay for themselves over time.. High efficiency models capture so much heat from the burning process that very little goes out with the exhaust.. You can identify a high efficiency furnace because instead of a metal pipe going up and out the chimney, they have a white PVC pipe that vents out the side of your house.

Believe it or not, water is one of the byproducts of burning natural gas. In older furnaces the water vapor escapes out the chimney. In high efficiency furnaces there is a condensate tube that drains the water from the furnace. If the tube clogs the bottom of your furnace could fill with water if the furnace is working hard.

Another common type of furnace is the boiler. Residential boilers are hot water systems, not steam. In older systems the radiators are used to distribute the heat. Starting in the 1950's or 1960's they started to use baseboard units which don't take up as much space. More recently, in floor heat has become popular.

Boilers are more expensive than forced air furnaces and they should last longer. There are advantages to hot water heat. Instead of blowing dry winter air around your house warmth radiates from a warm radiator or floor. I've been told this type of heat feels warmer and you can keep your thermostat lower. I'm not sure how to judge that.

In floor radiant heat is very nice, especially in a tile bathroom or basement floor. We put a new cement floor in the basement of our previous old house. The plumber talked us into putting radiant heat in the floor. He told us it was okay to run water from our water heater through the pipes instead of putting in a boiler. It worked fine that way. Our whole home felt warmer and our basement family room with warm floors became a favorite spot for everybody.

When we built our new house we put in both in-floor radiant heat and forced air. The boiler hangs on the wall in the utility room. The high efficiency boiler supplies both domestic hot water and heats the water that keeps us warm. Unlike our old system, the water that heats our home is in a closed system and is different than our water for showers etc.We also planned for an outdoor wood boiler which circulates water in the same way as the main boiler but the heat source is outside.

We envisioned saving lots of money by burning wood. We haven't put in the wood boiler yet because it is expensive and we have discovered that our house is very easy to heat. It would take a long tome for the wood boiler to pay for itself. That's all for now.

J. T.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Real Estate and the Web

We recently moved to the country. It's all I can talk about. I enjoy nature and animals. We regularly see deer, racoon , possum, coyotes. We even had a black bear visit us. We have a Red Tailed hawk that occasionally flies by with a snake dangling from its talons.

The mice are everywhere out here. I've got an old Ford Pickup truck I use to plow our driveway. They, the mice get into the truck and make nests in the glove compartment. They also made nests in the heater and at least one crawled down the defroster vent and died.

Sometimes I feel like I'd like to get rid of all the mice. But if I could ever manage to do that, I'd lose my hawk, the coyotes and who knows what else. Everyone knows about the food chain. Everything depends on the smallest creatures at the bottom. Though it is not quite as simple as a chain, its more like a web of living things all dependant on each other.

The real estate market is like a food chain. The first time buyer is at the base. They buy an existing home and the owners of that home buy another, probably more expensive, home and so on. The builder who builds expensive new homes is dependat on the first time buyer even if they never meet.

Our real estate market is not suffering from a lack of buyers. At this point they are still out there. In Red Wing, where I work, the low end is almost normal in terms of number of homes sold. First time buyers are purchasing homes and getting deals like you've never seen before.

Let's define the low end of our market as $150,000 and under. Right now there are around 60 homes in that price range. That's a lot more than normal. More than half of those are vacant foreclosures. In any give quarter you can expect 20 to thirty homes in that price range to sell.

Today in our real estate crisis that remains true. The problem is that when a vacant house sells, no one moves up. The "move up" or second time buyer has been removed from the food chain. It's hard for them to sell their homes when they are competing with banks who have to sell at any price.

Our market will not get better until first time buyers are buying mostly occupied homes. As long as foreclosures continue to flood the market, we are stuck. Mortgage rates don't matter as long as the inventory is all vacant homes.

With the current market conditions we can sell our inventory of foreclosures in three months. The problem is that they just keep coming.

The price of new construction can not drop in the same way as existing homes. Steel, copper and petrolium have all increased in price. Builders are scaling back and going out of business.

What happens when we reach the end of the vacant house inventory? Rates will be low, builders will not have the capacity to fill demand. All of the move up buyers who have been defering their move because of the market will find ready buyers. The market will take off in an unhealthy way.

There will be competitive offers and prices will sky rocket. The quality bulding we see today will be left in the past as builders jump to fill demand and make quick money. We have seen this before in the 70's and 80's. Maybe we will see inflation and recession at the same time again.

Low interest rates should not be the reaction to our current situation. If there is anything to be done it would be steps to stall coming foreclosures so there is a softer bounce as we come out of this.

This is Real Estate and the Web, the food chain and we are in for a ride, no matter what happens.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Kind of Busy

Now that we're through the Holidays real estate is picking up a little.

I'll write later. Until then, here's a website with some nice barns. I know at least some are in Minnesota because I recognize them.


BTW I recognize the artist as well, Nice stuff Lori.
Looks like you can go here to buy it. Pottery Place Art

John T.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

How to Make a New House "Old"

They say "write what you know" so today I will stick with today.

We just built a home and very much enjoyed doing it. The only reason, aside from money, we didn't do it earlier was that we like old homes and neighborhoods so much and didn't want to move.

Here's how it played out:
Our building site is in the country. It seemed to cry out for something in the spirit of an old farm house with a front porch. Well, we didn't do that. We chose a practical modern plan from a magazine that had the space we needed. But we didn't want an attached garage, so we pulled it off the plan.

We added both a sun room and a three season porch that were not in the plan. As a real estate agent, I've shown a bunch of country homes in the last dozen years. A country scene I wanted to avoid sticks out in my mind. It's a front door without a sidewalk or steps. Lots of folks in the country simply don't use the formal front entry. It's wasted space.

We got rid of the formal entry and the front hall.

We used a steeper roof pitch and increased the overhang to make the house look older. We used painted siding and we put in lots of big windows. The contractor would have been happy to nail the siding on at this point, but he wasn't fast enough.

We asked him to put wide trim around the windows mimicking the dimensions of our old foursquare in town. Since we were into custom trim we added shingle siding in the gables and clapboard on the body of the house and accented them with a skirt board on the bottom and freeze boards where the siding meets the eaves.

Window trim on the inside is like the old stuff as well. Window sills are not standard so we had to copy them from our old house.

Pergo, the flooring material, is amazing stuff. It looks just like wood and wears like iron, that was our original choice.

We settled on quartersawn white oak floors instead. I saw them in a renovated home and liked them a lot. We also did a window seat with built-in bookcases out of quartersawn red oak.

You can see where this leads. An upgrade here, a slight change of plane there. Few of your ideas remain unchanged and changes increase your cost.

Kitchen cabinets - we know a guy who does beautiful work. We chose doors exactly like those in the pantry of our Saint Paul duplex and used a simple shaker crown mould. We used cherry wood harvested from our land.

At the last minute we changed the orientation of the house to face almost due south. The wide eaves shade windows from sun in the summer, but in the winter when the sun is lower, our windows completely heat the house on a sunny day. It was worth the extra push to make that happen.

We had to stick to a small size so our rooms aren't big and the only bedroom on the main floor is the master. There is no dining room, but we have a large eat-in kitchen - The dining room in our old house was used for everything except dining.

We are in now & we plan to be here forever.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Imagine About 100 years ago

Now I'm making things up, but here's what I imagine. To get you in the spirit here is a video slide show of appliances that go with the era.

Plaster is great stuff for walls, but it has its drawbacks. You don't want it to get wet when you are mopping those wood floors. I imagine this is why some still call base boards "mop boards". Those big wide boards protect the plaster from wet mops.

If you had a little extra money and you wanted to dress things up a bit you'd ad a "cap" moulding to that mopboard. The cap moulding by its self probably has more wood in it than the entire baseboard of some new homes.

If you have a little more money you have a servant stair from your kitchen to a room upstairs in the back of the house. The floors in that room were probably maple instead of oak. You may have gotten away with clear fir for the floors and trim for the servant's room. Definitly no cap moulding.

You don't want to pound nails into plaster or you might start a crack so you hang art from wires on hooks that attach to wood picture rails that run around every room near the ceiling.

If you want to display plates or other nick nacks in your dining room, then you have a plate rail. Since air conditioning hasn't been invented by the guy in Minneapolis yet and you have radiator heat, you might have transom windows above the door that crank open and closed to control air circulation.

The radiators have decorative covers and little pans hanging from them that you put water into for humidity in winter.

There are lots of big windows with wide trim "ganged" together sometimes in twos or threes or maybe a bay window with a window seat. Every window has a window sill. When did window sills become extras?

Little ropes go up from the window sash and over pulleys into the window casement. The pulley's squeak and you can hear the window weights clunk around when you open the window. If the rope breaks and the weight falls off you can remove the brass screws in the wood that holds the window sashes in. Then you can open the casement and reach in to replace the rope.

There is a room in the basement that is full of coal and in the winter someone has go to go down there and stoke the furnace.

They say folks were shorter back then and places were harder to heat. So I'd like someone to explain to me why more than a few homes had nine and ten foot ceilings.

Stairways railings and newel posts were catalog items back then, probably on the next page from the built in buffets and book cases. The beveled mirrors had thicker glass and wider bevels than the mirrors you buy today.

In late afternoon the sun sparkles through a leaded glass window in the living room.

Imagine, the front door had a window, maybe curved, full length with beveled glass with decorative, machine carved designs in the wood. In the middle of the heavy oak front door or perhaps in the wall next to the door is a brass door bell. A real bell with little clappers in it that spin round and round when a guest pushes on it.

You live in a new developement, you have indoor plumbing and a model "T" parked in the garage. Natural gas is piped in by the city for your lights and stove.

What will they think of next? -Try electricity for one.

Your refrigerator uses ice blocks and you get meat from the meat market right before you cook it. The butcher knows you're having a big roast this Sunday so he has it on hand. Everyone is taking the street car out to White Bear Lake this weekend.

I'm not a history guy, and I just figure things out I can imagine the technology. Telephones must have happened around then, airplanes? Imagine the machines and factories, new jobs.

This was a high tech world and people were amazed at themselves for living in it. This home was designed for beauty and comfort. This imaginary old home is still comfortable and pleasing.

OOps, sorry I've got to get off of the old house theme.


More interior wood features.

Beadboard. You still see original beadboard on the cielings of old porches. I think around the turn of the century(1900) they used it if they didn't want to plaster. Old beadboard was 3/4 of an inch thick and several inches wide. The peices fit together with a tongue and groove. The "bead" helps to hide the joint between peices.

All of the walls and ceiling of the kitchen in one of our homes had beadboard under sheetrock. I have recently seen a renovated home from the early 1900's that still has beadboard on every ceiling and wall in the house.

Sometimes beadboard was used on the lower portion of the wall with a cap moulding as wainscoating. You can buy paneling to mimic this look, but its somehow not quite the same.

You can still get beadboard that looks just like the old stuff. You'll find the clear pine which they used on everything seemingly without a thought in the old days to be prohibitively expensive though. We used some of the less than perfect grade for the ceiling of the porch on our new home and it looks pretty good.

Sometimes people call beadboard "car siding", but that is something different. Car siding is about the same dimension as beadboard and it is toung and groove but it has just two bevels instead of "beads".

I think of it as being on slightly newer homes(1940s) and more likely to be used as exterior siding. I picture an old garage in South Minneapolis when I think of car siding. Some of the newer no maintenance siding is made to look like car siding.

It seems logical to note here that fewer homes were built between the late 1920s and early 1940's. Quite often you'll find houses of that era built of different materials, like fiber board on the walls instead of plaster.


Floors and Woodwork

Well maybe this is the post I was thinking of when I started the last one. I went from wood to rotting old boards. Not much fun, but I've always felt you should work from the ground up.

Old homes and woodwork go together. Even modest homes of the twenties had wood features that make us drool today.

We can start with floors. Someone once told me that in Saint Paul and Minneapolis in the early 1900's building code required homes to have hardwood floors. True? I don't know.

Common floors were red oak or maple. I'm told sometimes birch was used, but I can't tell the difference between birch and maple . Often the main floor or formal area of the home had oak floors and woodwork. The second floor or less formal areas often had maple. Seems like the maple was the first to get painted.

I've refinished original floors in kitchens and bathrooms that came out quite nice.

Some renovation notes. Floor refinshers will want to refinsh floors without staining them. This way they can avoid a step and get the job done faster. It is well worth taking the time and spending just a little extra to stain oak floors. Oak stains up nicely.

Maple is the opposite. It has such tight pores the stain tends to blotch and look bad. If you have maple floors and you want a richer color, try an oil base poly eurethane. As it ages it has a richer honey color.

If you are thinking of using salvaged hardwood floors be careful. All of the floor boards should be run through a planer before installing other wise it will be nearly impossible to sand evenly because of wear patterns from the old floor.

Salvaged or new flooring can not be left in any place that is not climate controlled before installation. Moisture content will climb in less than two weeks and the boards will swell. They will shrink again after installation leaving gaps between the floor baords.

When you order new wood floors you can pay extra and get longer boards, otherwise modern hardwood floors tend to have a lot of three or four foot boards. I don't think this affects function, but the longer boards are more like old homes.

Don't use oil soap, or floor wax on hardwood floors. If you can stick with this rule you can have the floors buffed and a coat of varnish added for a resonable cost and your floors will look lke new again.

I always imagine hardwood to be under old carpet or vinyl in the old neighborhoods. It is likely, but a gamble to expect it without seeing it.

I know of at least one home in Highland Park with wood floors just around the perimeter of each room because it was built that way. I know of a couple homes with similar floor situations because renovators cut most of the floor out because of animal urine and twice I've seen floors with fire damage when the carpet was removed. Often parts of floors are missing where walls have been moved. A lot of things can happen in a hundred years.

On the flip side I have seen homes with perfect floors under the carpet that only needed a good scrubbing. I've seen horrible looking floors that sanded out to look like new. Much better than going to the casino in my opinion.

I guess this one turned into wood floors. We still have other wood things to cover. Maybe nest time.

Post About Wood

I've been thinking about wood, so we'll see where that takes us. There are wood things you should pay attention to when you buy a home.

The lumber in an old home can be amazing. A two by four was really 2 inches by four inches unlike the today's 1 and a half inch by 3 and a half inch. I have seen old homes with oak or walnut floor joists! Not common however.

So why are old homes so often uneven? There are lots of possibilties.

In our area, your wood house probably sits on a concrete or limestone foundation. Cool concrete attracts moisture and wood soaks it up. In new homes it is code that any wood that is in contact with concrete is treated.

What about old homes? Check for rot in places that could be moist. Some old homes have cement between the rim(floor) joists which can cause a problem. Also wood posts on damp cement floors can rot. Partial basements in older homes can be chronically damp.

When you are in the house take your car key and poke the wood in these places, Random floor joists, the ends of the floor joists where they rest on the foundation and support posts. While you're at it check the exterior window trim in the same way, especially towards the bottom.

There are usually ways to deal with rotted floor joists and the like, but it would be nice to notice this before you write a purchase agreement.

In the old days, especially before 1900, people had more faith in their lumber. Sure the old two by fours might have been beefy, but they had to span ridiculous distnaces in many roofs. Old neighborhoods are full of homes with sagging roofs that you don't notice until you start looking.

A Saint Paul lumber yard used to have pictures on the wall of old Saint Paul homes being built. The homes at that time were "balloon framed" meaning one two by four went from the foundation to the second floor. The photos showed 2x4's sticking high into the air beyond the second story waiting to be trimmed off.

The older your home, the fewer bulding codes there where at the time it was built. When you are looking at homes note the dimension of the floor and ceiling joists. It would be nice if they were 2 x 8's or more and 16 inch on center.

If you are looking at a house with attic or "expansion" space ask your inspector if the floor joists in the attic can handle the load.

I was in a big old house last fall that had 2 x 4 floor joists 24 inches on center. It was sagging under 100+ years of its own weight and needed first aid.

There is another thing that leads to sagging in an old house that is more common than the first two. Look at the plumbing and heating and how it was run. Often, sometime in the past, a furnace man or plumber has simply notched or completely cut away important parts of an old house to run pipes and ducts.

The good news is most of these items can be repaired, in some cases you may just leave it alone and call it character.Thats it for now.


Saturday, January 5, 2008

Searching for Homes on the Internet

The world of real estate has changed a lot because of the internet. In the old days every real estate office kept a three ring binder with their listings in it. Each real estate agent subscribed to multiple listing books that had all of the listings from other companies in them with one tiny black and white photo for each property.

We'd each get our new book once a week. We were told not to share this book with anyone. It was private Realtor information. Our customers called and made an appointment or walked into the office. We would sit and page through the book together.

"Can we just take this book home?", the customer would say. "No, its not allowed.", the Realtor would say.

Today almost every real estate customer has looked at homes on the internet before they meet the Realtor. The internet caused the Multiple Listing Service to share this information with the public. If the Multiple Listing had not shared the data it would have found its way on to the internet one way or another.

Realtors share listing information under a very strict set of rules handed down by Multiple Listing Service. You will find that the information shared on different Realtor web sites is the same. The difference is in presentation and how easy the site is to use. My favorite site is this one.

What you won't find on a Realtor web site is listings of real estate company's that are not members of the Multiple Listing Service. If you find a "For Sale By Owner" listing it is actually listed by a Realtor who has made a special agreement with the homeowner.

You might have the idea that foreclosure listings show up in special places other than the MLS. Not really. Most foreclosures are listed by local Realtors and you find them mixed in with all of the other MLS listings.

There are web sites that sell foreclosure property information lists. I have seen some of our foreclosure listings on these sites either with the wrong price or sometimes months after they have been sold or closed.

Some services advertise that they have foreclosure information in advance, but I wonder how much of a help that really is. If someone knows more about this I'd love a comment.

So how do you find those listings not on the MLS? That's a good question. There is no one answer. Some non MLS brokers have web sites, there are non MLS for sale by owner web sites. Here is one I found with a few listings not on the MLS. You could look in the classified section of your local newspaper or drive around looking for signs.

An interesting option is a service called "Google Base". It is a database of real estate listings of every kind thrown together. Many MLS Brokers submit their listings to Google base. Non MLS and for sale by owners are allowed to post listings there as well.

If you do a Google Search such as "Minneapolis Real Estate" the results will first show a couple "sponsored" web sites below that it will say, "Find results for Minneapolis real estate in Housing search" with a button that says "go".

Or you could just do a Google search for "Google base".

There are a lot of listings missing from Google Base, but there is the potential to find something different.

If you are searching for real estate yourself on the Internet it will serve you best to choose one Realtor and refer your findings to her/him. This way you have some control over who you work with rather than leaving it to random chance.

If you don't have a Realtor yet, contacting listing agents of properties you find on line could be a good way to find agents to interview.

There are lots of things to be said about choosing a Realtor, but that should be the subject of another post.


Friday, January 4, 2008

Favorite things - about old Homes

When I talk about old homes, I mean 1928 and older. Homes built before the stock market crash. Those times where different and the homes of that era are different as well. Here are some examples.

Possibly built before electricity, possibly built before indoor plumbing, before the modern automobile, heated by wood or coal, lighting with gas. No such thing as sheet rock. Wood floors standard, no wall to wall carpet. Smaller lots with alleys.

If your home is original you might have sawdust or newspaper insulation, there could be lead paint or asbestos. Windows could be rotten or drafty.

Have you guessed yet that I love old homes? There are things that an old home has that can't be matched by a new home.

History. Because its old, its seen a lot and been through things. If you renovate an old home and you do it with care you might witness a few things the home has seen.

As you remove the layers put on by previous owners it is like viewing the rings of a tree. As you see what makes up the house you can try to understand the reasons for things that were done.

The extra six feet added to the original model t garage, the untouched closet with two hooks, one for the Sunday best clothes and another for the weekday clothes, a coal chute in the foundation wall, the stub of a gas pipe behind the kitchen light fixture,

the canning stove in the basement, the furnace that's bigger than your car, the window in a closet because there were no lights. The odd swing of doors that accommodates light. The pipes in the bedroom wall upstairs and extra outside door from when the home was duplexed(happened in the 40's all of the time),

the bathroom that was a pantry or a closet. The kitchen with so many doors there is no room for cabinets. Writing on walls by remodelers long gone about girls who were beautiful before your parents were born. A hammer in a wall cavity recovered 100 years after it was lost. The history of families long gone written on the bottom of a buffet drawer. Dated marks on walls that show growth spurts of kids from long ago. Notes about how much fuel oil was purchased and what it cost.

But really, you have to live in this place, why would you want to do that?

These were not stupid people who designed these homes. They just lived in a different world.

Older homes have more, bigger windows that let in more light. If they are original the glass is wavy. They might leak a little air, but that's healthy, the garage is detached, giving more wall space for windows and light, fumes from your car don't leak into the house. Often the woodwork is wide oak or clear pine that couldn't be purchased today. The walls are solid plaster that deaden sound. You can close doors between rooms for privacy or heating considerations. There are larger foyer and dining spaces, built in buffets, beveled glass, brass door knobs, wainscoting beamed ceilings, high ceilings, walk up attics, clothes chutes.

The inside of an old home can be a thing of beauty. I think of light and space and rich wood or wide painted trim contrasting walls and accenting windows. I think of windows you can't bear to cover with curtains.

The exterior, even of many modest older homes, has the potential to be classier than 90% of the newer homes built today.

There is something about the look of larger windows, skirt boards wide window trim, freeze boards sofit brackets and steeper roof lines that makes an old home look elegant.

The garage is in the back of the house where it belongs and the house actually has a face instead of triple garage doors and expansive concrete.

Old homes are built on smaller lots with less grass, manageable sidewalks and no driveway to shovel. Because of this you might even know several of your neighbors.

There could be a guy down the block with a snow blower that just keeps going and does everyone's walk. Oh, this is possible because your neighborhood has sidewalks. And if you are lucky you might be able to follow that sidewalk to a store, park, friend's house without ever getting in the car.

There are lots of good things about homes that aren't old, but that's for another time.

John T.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Ice Dams

I was out looking around on the web the other day and I came across a blog that I enjoyed. There wasn't much talk, mostly photos of Saint Paul, a wide variety of things. Current Daily photos of things out and about in Saint Paul. Lucas, the author, calls it, "Picture St. Paul ".

I used to live in Saint Paul and sold real estate there for eleven years. We have since moved closer to family, but there are a lot of good memories there.

It is funny how two people can look at the same picture and see something totally different. In this blog there were a few shots of icicles -- and that's how I can tie something I enjoyed into real estate.

Lucas took some shots of Icicles that show a small Ice Dam, the kind you see in varying degrees all over older neighborhoods.

Older homes, like those in Saint Paul, were built differently than those today. It occurs to me that I have a lot of good things to say about old homes that will be the subject of my next entry.

Here is something to watch for and consider when you are looking at any home, but you will see more frequently in older homes, Ice Dams. Ice Dams form when a warm roof melts snow, the water runs down the roof until it gets to the overhang of the roof which is colder. They are more likely to occur on the south and east exposure of a home.

Ice Dams can be a problem especially in winters with heavy snow because they can cause a home with an otherwise good roof to leak. As Ice builds up water flows uphill, up the roof between the roof and the ice and up behind the shingles and into your house.

Often older homes did not have enough vents in the roof or insulation in the attic floor. Insulation in the attic floor is obvious enough, it keeps the snow melting heat out of the attic. Roof vents are counter intuitive for some though. They help get rid of heat that has escaped your home, they keep the attic cold. You want your attic space to be cold so the snow on the roof melts less.

The home in the photo is older than the 1920's and has wider eaves. Homes built in the 1940's often have a style with shorter eves. Smaller Ice dams have the potential for causing trouble on those homes. Look for signs of water leakage in closets near dormers or look for other signs that the owner has had to deal with such a problem:

Fresh paint where the wall meets the ceiling, heat tapes on gutters or eves. In the summer look for unusual wear or even damage in the valleys or on the eaves of the roof, especially south and east exposures. Notice if there is a roof rake in the garage. You wouldn't have one if you didn't need it.

Here are some ways to deal with Ice dams. The best is to insulate your attic floor and make sure there are enough vents to keep your attic cold. If you are re roofing make sure the roofer puts an extra row of ice and water shield near the eaves to be sure the area prone to ice dams has extra protection from seepage. Put heat tapes in your gutters or on your roof use them when ice starts to build up. Use a snow rake to pull snow off of problem areas, taking care not to damage the roof.

A cold roof is fragile. Don't try to pry or chop ice off the roof or you'll be sorry.

If a home occasionally gets ice dams its not the end of the world, but it is a problem you should be aware of if you live in a cold climate. It's just one more factor to consider when looking at the features of a home.

Hope this helps.

John T.